Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium has all the feel of an intrasquad scrimmage rather than a bawdy class reunion.
Carson Palmer brings his Raiders into the building where he led two playoff runs as he tries to peel away his trade demand, the 12th-hour deal, the hard feelings and raw emotion. Palmer has it about right with the 3-7 Raiders gasping into a 5-5 Jungle looking to make another December playoff push with a win over the former Bengals franchise quarterback.
"They need a win, we need a win, it's a big game for both sides," Palmer said in his Thanksgiving Eve conference call with the Cincinnati media. "We are both kind of in a spot where we need to win out to keep hope alive and play our best football this last half of the year."
Palmer not only finds the Bengals on a two-game winning streak, but familiar faces hard-wired into his game.
There is Hue Jackson. That's the man who recruited Palmer to USC 15 years go and the former Raiders head coach who last year rescued him from the couch and urged the Bengals to trade for him. Now Jackson is a Bengals defensive assistant.
"He can spin the ball like nobody can," Jackson says of Palmer. "He can throw a football and throw it well. I know the criticism of turnovers and the things that people say, but no one knows. I mean I don't know if the receivers weren't in the right spot or protections. I mean a lot of things go into interceptions that I don't think people truly understand. But at the end of the day this is a really good football player."
There is Marvin Lewis, the defensive-minded Bengals head coach who began his program nine years ago taking Palmer with the first overall pick in the draft. Palmer is wearing a different number (3 instead of 9) in a different scheme, but the long-ball 9 route is a big part of what's he doing.
"It's a little different scheme than what we had here; it's similar to what we are now with more of a West Coast scheme," Lewis said in his Wednesday news conference. "They'll have a lot of vertical throws in it though."
There is Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Palmer's fellow avid hunter who he watched fashion the '09 AFC North title with less talent than Zimmer has now and has a hot defense that has allowed 19 points and one TD in the last two games.
"I really haven't had a chance to see them play much the last couple of years because we really haven't played like opponents right after the Bengals have played them, so I haven't seen a ton of game film," Palmer said. "But when I started looking at them Sunday night, I'm not surprised one bit. Just knowing Zimmer and the types of personality he has, to see the way these guys are playing, I'm not surprised one bit."
And then there is safety Chris Crocker. While Palmer captained that '09 offense, Crocker headed up the defense and they went at it in two training camps. Throw in cornerback Leon Hall and his four camps against Palmer.
"He probably feels the same way. He feels like he knows me, he knows Leon," Crocker said. "He doesn't know the other guys back there, but he probably feels like he has a good bead on us. He knows how we like to play and how aggressive we are. "It's not really about Carson. We know he's going to be jacked up and wants to come in here and go yard, but we've faced good quarterbacks this year. Let's not make it about one guy. It's really about the team."
There should be enough familiarity to figure out how to defuse Palmer's dangerous arm that has already accounted for 3,035 yards, third-best in the NFL and fueled three straight 300-yard games for the first time in his career. Palmer knows there is knowledge on both sides.
"Especially with Hue knowing everybody here," Palmer said. "The team really hasn't changed personnel-wise much, so him being on the defensive side of the ball and combining his mind with Zim's mind, that's a great combination. Hue knows the players and personnel and strengths and weaknesses of guys and Zim's as good as it gets as far as coaches and defensive coordinators are concerned. They've got a good combination of great knowledge of the game and different offenses and with Hue's little bit of added knowledge of personnel."
But Palmer's not sure how much of that is going to translate since he only went against first-teamers in camp.
"There's a lot of new guys on the field. The other thing is, when you're the starter you really play against the backups or the opposing defense that you're going to see," Palmer said. "The only time you play against the defensive coordinator so to speak is in training camp and in OTAs. So I'm not thinking back to my days of practice because when I was practicing there, I was practicing against the scout team looks for the opposing team we were playing."
Palmer has gone against Zimmer only once in a game and it was so long ago in Palmer's first year of playing in 2004 that Zimmer has coordinated two defenses since he was coordinating Dallas that day. Palmer put up a 94.8 passer rating as the Bengals beat the Cowboys, 20-3, at PBS.
That was before Palmer went to two Pro Bowls and had an ACL injury followed by an elbow injury that critics say sapped his arm strength in Cincinnati. But Jackson hasn't seen that the last two years.
"He's beyond that; he was beyond that a year ago," Jackson said. "The guy's tough, he a competitor, he takes care of his body, he loves the game, he works at it. Again, at the end of the day, he's one of the guys in this league that you would like to have him because you know what he brings. He's going to work every day and give you an honest day's work."
While he's got gaudy passing numbers, the other numbers haven't been kind to Palmer as he's had to adjust to his second new offense in as many seasons, a West Coast style. His 7.3 yards per attempt average is in the middle of the league and less than his Pro Bowl seasons of 2005 and 2006. He's 20th in completion percentage and is 7-12 as the starter.
The Raiders have a dangerous running game even with Darren McFadden not expected to play this week in the person of versatile fullback Marcel Reese. But the defense has given up 135 points in the last three games, the fourth-most ever in 12 quarters since the merger, and the Raiders have had to bail out of the running game early.
"It's definitely an attacking offense. There's lots of opportunities to throw the ball down the field," said Palmer, but he's had to go with the short stuff until the last couple of weeks. "Lots of big chunk plays that if it's not there, you just check it down to the tight end running across the field or you have outlets, multiple outlets, and a lot of guys get out in pass protection. I really like it. I think for the first year running it, we've done an OK job. But I think as we progress in this offense guys are going to get better, and I'll get better and we're just going to improve."
Of course, the Raiders can't wait around and the Bengals still see Palmer as one of the best pure passers, so the strategy is obvious. The Bengals are in a brutal stretch against big-arm quarterbacks. They got a breather last Sunday in Kansas City with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, but the three weeks before that it was Ben Roethlisberger and the Mannings. The next three weeks it is Palmer, San Diego's Philip Rivers, and Dallas' Tony Romo, and that's how the Bengals are looking at Palmer.
"You have to make him move," Crocker said. "You have to make any good quarterback move."
"He can sling it," defensive back Nate Clements said. "But we have to focus on ourselves. We have to keep playing the way we've been playing. If we can keep up the intensity of the last few weeks, we're going to be OK."
There may be 28 players on the Bengals roster that never played with him, but Palmer is close enough to this defense that it seems like he can feel them. He knows the Bengals can bring pressure with the front four. He says defensive tackle Geno Atkins just might be the NFL defensive MVP and he thinks ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are emerging.
"Thinking back, Geno wasn't playing a ton, I think it was Carlos's rookie year and he was hurt a bunch, Michael wasn't playing a ton but those guys have just exploded," Palmer said. "Obviously they're being coached tremendously and being put in positions to really shine where they're showing their strengths. I think they're second or third in the league in sacks and it's not like they're dialing up a ton of pressures and blitzing 45 percent of the game. They're a lower-percent blitz team but they're doing such a good job.
"They've really come into their own. They're dominant across the board and then (end) Robert Geathers is as solid as they come too. You don't need to get a lesson from me on guys' strengths or weaknesses, you just need to watch the film. Guys on our team are watching the film and they're seeing what everybody sees. What they see is a dominant front four that rushes the passer and gets after it."
Geathers is the one guy left from Palmer's first year of '04, so he's got that institutional memory.
"He wants to take his shots. He's still that guy. Still playing pretty good ball, still can sling it anywhere on the field," Geathers said. "Just like any other quarterback, It's no big deal. If we can disrupt him and get in his face, we'll be fine."